Raising political capital

July 11, 2005

WHEN INCREASED numbers of black Americans cast their votes for President Bush last fall, some political watchers began immediately questioning the relevance of the Congressional Black Caucus (CBC) and speculating that the all-Democratic group of lawmakers was losing influence with black voters and on Capitol Hill.

In the months since however, the CBC has quietly worked behind the scenes, meeting with key Bush administration cabinet officials, forging relationships with Republican lawmakers, strengthening ties with the Hispanic and Asian-American caucuses - all with the aim of meeting policy goals the group set at the start of the year.

The strategy seems to be working and the caucus' constituents - black Americans and black immigrants, college graduates and college dropouts, white-collar professionals and the working poor - are better served because of it. Income, health and homeownership disparities between blacks and whites are being widely discussed. Racial parity in the criminal justice system is being addressed. Combating AIDS in Africa and in black communities here at home is on the Bush agenda.

The CBC had a hand in much of this, illustrating that much can be done by leveraging the collective political capital of black voters who, despite having given 88 percent of their vote to John Kerry last fall, are being heavily courted by the Republican party, which saw the share of the black vote for Mr. Bush grow to 11 percent in 2004 from 8 percent in 2000.

Caucus members began this year by meeting with President Bush at the White House, and while the two sides disagreed on several important issues, they also found common ground. Days later, during his State of the Union speech, President Bush cited initiatives to help struggling urban areas, keep young men away from gangs and out of jail, and combat racial disparities in the criminal justice system - all topics the lawmakers had raised with him.

Rep. Bobby Rush of Illinois reported that after the speech, the president whispered to him, "That was a good meeting we had. You see I included some of your issues and concerns into my speech tonight."

Earlier this month caucus members met with Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and discussed deteriorating political conditions in Haiti, immigration reform, and increasing trade with black Caribbean countries, among other things. A week later, CBC president Mel Watt of North Carolina met with Attorney General Alberto Gonzales and discussed voting rights, prisoner re-entry programs, and more.

By working to influence administration policy on issues its constituents care about, the caucus is proving itself effective, even if in a limited way and despite its minority-within-a-minority-party status. For example, Rep. Kendrick Meek of Florida has been effective in pressing the administration to pay more attention to Haiti, where a U.S.-backed interim government is foundering amid escalating political violence.

If the CBC continues on this politically sound approach to governing, fewer people will question its relevance. No one will have to.

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